Trinity Troubles

Title: Trinity Troubles
Text: Various
Theme: How difficult yet crucial to believe the Trinity
Preacher: Mike Furey
Place: Highland Baptist Church, Georgetown, Indiana
Date: June 11, 2006
Dedication: In Honor Of Travis Baker, Fellow Christian and Co-worker at FMHHS

Troubling Scripture Passages

First Corinthians 15:24 is one of the most difficult passages relating to the Trinity to understand. If Christ is equal to God, if Christ is eternal, why is he surrendering the kingdom to the Father at the end of time?

Another difficult passage is from Philippians 2, dealing with the kenosis, the self-emptying of Jesus. Will Jesus retain his human form in heaven for ever? I think he will; but what exactly did he empty himself of? What did he lose in that emptying process? I don't know. There are a lot of troubling things in the scriptures, but nothing must stop us from living the most loving life possible and living that life in the name of Jesus.

The Most Troubling Teaching Of All

Those two passages, of all the passages that relate to the Trinity, are the hardest to understand. The doctrine of the Trinity is THE most difficult of all teachings to understand; yet when the disciples of Jesus were about to have the world collapse in on them, our Lord spent so much time in the Upper Room speaking to them about the mystery of the Trinity, (Robert Letham, p. 375 from a quote by Sinclair Ferguson in a personal email).

Troubles In History

Cults have arisen whenever some thinker has attempted to define this most difficult of concepts to grasp. The Jehovah Witnesses arose from their heretical attempt to solve this issue. The Mormons did not spring forth from this issue, but they do have their own explanation for the Trinity, which is unorthodox and not in keeping with Christian history and thought.

Try to explain it to a child. God the Father sent God the Son to pay for our sins by death on the cross and then raised his son from the dead. Now all who repent and believe in his resurrection will be born of God the Spirit. Then ask them how many Gods there are. They will invariably say, "three." It is a mathematical problem to say the least.

Today the world is full of trouble and even war because of the difficulty in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps I may be overstating the case, and I certainly do not want to be disrespectful to a major religious leader, yet may I speculate that Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic religion, did not understand the Trinity at all? Muhammad teaches that God will punish those who believe in a trinitarian God. Perhaps had he been born before the Nicene council of A.D. 325, there would only be amity between Christianity and Islam.

In Sura 4, end of section 160 - and beginning of section 170:

O ye people of the Book! Overstep not bounds* in your religion; and of God, speak only truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary is only an apostle of God, ... Believe therefore in God and his apostles and say not, 'Three:' (there is a Trinity) - Forbear - it will be better for you. God is only one God! Far be it from His glory that he should have a son! His, whatever is in the Heavens, and whatever is in the Earth! ... The Messiah disdaineth not to be a servant of God ...

In Sura 5, in the 70 block:

Infidels now are they who say, 'God is the Messiah, Son of Mary;' for the Messiah said, 'O children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.' Whoever shall join other gods with God, God shall forbid him the Garden, and his abode shall be the Fire; ... They surely are Infidels who say, 'God is the third of three;' for there is no God but one God; and if they refrain not from what they say, a grievous chastisement shall light on such of them as are infidels. Will they not, therefore, be turned unto God, and ask pardon of him? since God is Forgiving, Merciful!

First of all, Christians do not believe in three Gods! There is only one God. It is the most fundamental truth of the entire scriptures for the Jews, for the Christians and for the Muslims. The Hebrew scripture, alias OT, teaches there is only one God. The NT teaches there is only one God. The Qur'an teaches there is only one God. And indeed there is only ONE God.

Why do we even bother with this troublesome doctrine? The word "Trinity" doesn't even appear in the Bible and did not appear in history until A.D. 200 in the writings of Tertullian, who also used the terms "persona" and "substantia" to explain "trinitas." The church did not formally meet until A.D. 325 to try to refine this concept and when they did they based the methods of their thinking on philosophy! They met again at Constantinople in A.D. 385 and came up with more philosophical argumentation based on Aristotelian-Platonic logic.

According to an article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity:

In 325, the Council of Nicaea adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that from then on was seen as the hallmark of orthodoxy; it declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (homoousios) as the Father. This was further developed into the formula "three persons, one substance". The answer to the question "What is God?" indicates the one-ness of the divine nature, while the answer to the question "Who is God?" indicates the three-ness of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Troubling Form: Cirque du Freak**

All this patristic talk of ousia (the very being of God), homoousia (the son and the spirit have the same being as the father and are totally equal and not subordinate to the father), substantia (the nature of God, whatever God is made of), consubstantia (all three are one, but yet separate individuals), hypostasis or persona or prosopon (what one of them is by themselves), perichoresis (all 3 occupy the same divine space, mutual containing, the eternal movement of Love within the Holy Trinity, an interpenetration of love), etc are all concepts based on philosophy. Only one of the terms is in the Bible, the word prosopon, which means "face" but has no connection to its philosophical usage. These terms are interpretations trying to satisfy the intellectuals of their time in the wisdom of their time. They are attempts to understand the being and the nature of God. And they fall short. Modern theological attempts to explain the Trinity appear to me as more of a clown circus of ideas than even the early church fathers' attempts. We are putting God into a cirque du freak with our interpretations of his nature. Imagine trying to define our wives using philosophy or even something easy like chemistry. I love you, dear, I love your sodium chloride*** ... Can we really describe God in these classical terms?

However, the most useful concept from this Aristotelian platform can be a tool for understanding the Trinity and love. God is love and if there is a perichoresis, we can understand Love, if there is a 3 in 1, there is Love; if there is an interrelating of these persona, there is love among the 3 in 1. God commands us to love because he is Love. We are to respond to this one whose very Being is Love and to the other beings in the created world whom the One Great Being loves. Duh, say that again. All these trinitarian explanations have to be meditated upon in order to make sense. This perichoresis point is worth it. The early church fathers were trying to make sense for their world. Unfortunately, in my opinion, no real progress has ever been made in this area of theology. And neither can it be - as theological history has demonstrated.

Trite Analogies

If we must have a child-like way to explain the Trinity, perhaps we can accommodate our penchant towards processed information and idolatry with Augustine's analogy of fire, light, and heat. The fire has a life of its own, the light has a life of its own, the heat has a life of its own. They are all different but of one source, one being, one nature, one thing with 3 separate "lives." They are independent and have different ways. Yet how inadequate an explanation! Perhaps like the New Testament we should just declare "the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Augustine also used the analogy of love: the lover, the one loved, and love itself. An unsatisfying explanation.

Augustine also used the trilogy of memory, understanding and love. Another unsatisfying explanation. It stretches the imagination to even come close to making sense of this one.

Somebody came up with the shamrock analogy: three leaves on one stem. Another unsatisfying and ridiculous explanation. It'll work for the little guys for a while. Just like the egg analogy. Shell, white stuff (albumen), yolk.

In short, we cannot define God's essence and nature without scripture, nor can we tell his qualities. The qualities of his nature is that God is good, wise, just. And this we know not from reason but from scripture. Reason would tell us that if God were good he would stop all starvation of children and all suffering. Reason calls into question God's wisdom, even his sanity, in this insane world where evil seems to reign and justice is rarely achieved. Scripture is the foundation for faith and knowing.

The Trinity is indeed taught in the NT, but it is not provable or arguable by reason. It is simply asserted. It is part of revelation. Attempts to prove the Trinity by natural reason actually undermines the faith and provokes ridicule, we must rest solely on the authority of the scriptures, (Robert Letham, p. 229).

Trinitarian Texts

The very first chapter of the very first book in the scriptures, indirectly, teaches a trinitarian view of God. First, the word "God" or "Elohim" is plural. Why does the scripture use the plural for God? Why not "El?" I don't know; it is a mystery; yet it suggests something about God's nature. In Hebrew there are two ways to express plurality, one actually expresses the idea of two, such as the words for Jerusalem or Egypt, Yerushalayim or Mitzraim, meaning two Jerusalems or two Egypts. The "-aim" form expresses "two," while the "-im" form expresses more than two. Is this form of plurality used for God suggesting a cryptic reference to his complex ontology? I only wonder and stand curiously amazed. Then, the text itself refers to God in three various shades of reference. In Genesis 1:1 a cryptic reference to God the Father. In verse 2 a reference to the Spirit of God moving upon the surface of the waters. In verse 3 a cryptic reference to God the Son, the Word, speaking forth light into the world. Then verse 26, "let us make man in our image," more plurality within unity.

Then comparing the text from Genesis 1 with John 1, the eternality of the son is declared. The deity, the godhead is revealed in Christ, by Christ, through Christ, for Christ.

    Abbrevivated list and comments from the wikipedia article:
  • Matthew 28:19: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
  • John 1:14 "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."
  • John 8:58 "'I tell you the truth', Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!'" (This formulation mirrors Exodus 3:14 "God said to Moses, 'I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: "I AM has sent me to you."'")
  • John 10:30: "I and the Father are one." (Jesus is speaking here. The use of the Greek neuter form "en" indicates one "thing", i.e., the same substance. Alleged contradictions between this interpretation and verses that indicate a subordination of the Son to the Father are explained in reference to the two natures of Christ, the divine nature being identical with that of the Father, and the human nature, with a human intellect and will, being subject to the Father.)
  • Colossians 2:9: "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form."

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence. It tells us that the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit have planned and acted as one in pre-history, history, and future history to secure salvation, (Robert Letham, pp. 73-85).

When you attempt to define the Infinite God with finite terms you come up heretical. It is impossible to define God in words, to do so is idolatrous. When you attempt to define the NT statements about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, you come up ridiculous. He is beyond knowing; yet he has made himself known through history, through covenants, through Israel, through prophets, through scripture, and ultimately and definitively through Jesus the God-man, the incarnate son of God. It took almost 200 years after the resurrection of Christ before the church "got embarrassed" and had to justify their god-talk with contemporary ideas.

Why do I believe the Trinity? Why do I believe in the deity of Christ? A quote from T.F. Torrance from Robert Letham's book, p. 50 will suffice:

We rely for our belief in the deity of Christ not on various incidents recorded in the Gospels or on particular Bible texts, but upon the whole coherent evangelical structure of historical divine revelation in the New Testament Scriptures. It is when we indwell it, meditate upon it, tune into it, penetrate inside it, and absorb it into ourselves, and find the very foundations of our life and thought changing under the creative and saving impact of Christ, and are saved by Christ and personally reconciled to God in Christ, that we believe in him as Lord and God.

And why we believe in the Trinity, I might add.

The Crux Of The Matter

"The crucial point in the doctrine of the Trinity must be the effect of the Incarnation," (Robert Letham, p. 282). The main reason the Trinity is important is because without this doctrine we could not have the Incarnation. We could not have John 3:16. We could not have salvation.

The most important reason for a trinitarian revelation is so that we understand the doctrine of salvation and so that we worship God properly and give him glory.

The bottom line: If you don't worship God as revealed in Jesus Christ, you will have "Trinity Troubles." No justification. No sanctification. No glorification. In a word, no salvation. If we don't respond to God's love, we will self destruct, if not in this life time, then in the place of eternal destruction. If we do respond to God's love, then we will be transformed into new beings. Christ became like us so that we might become like him. The son of God became human so that humans can become sons and daughters of God.



End Notes:

*A footnote from The Koran, The Everyman edition to explain the phrase "Overstep not bounds": Jews don't believe enough, that is, in Muhammad; and the Christians believe in too much, that is, that Jesus was more than an apostle.

**My teenage daughter and I have read the Cirque Du Freak series together by Darren Shan. Fun reading is okay, ain't it?

***My college age son laughed at me during the sermon and told me later that humans don't have this type of salt in our bodies. This is table salt, (which is held by an ionic bond but when put in water it is held by a hydrogen bond. Got that?) He has completed his third year as a pharmacy student at the time of the delivery of this sermon. He said I also said the sun burns helium when I should have said hydrogen. I enjoy being corrected by my son.

Bibliography:

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity, June 10, 2006.
  • The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, Robert Letham, P&R Publishing Company, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, New Jersey 08865-0817, 2004.
  • The Koran, J.M. Rodwell, Translator and Alan Jones, Foreword and Introduction. Charles E Tuttle Co, Inc, 28 South Main Street, Rutland, Vermont, 05701, USA, Reprint 1995